Almost anyone can pick up a guitar and make it sound, well, like a guitar. Even incorrect strumming techniques will produce a sound, and with enough fumbling around, you might even be able to convince a few folks that you know what you’re doing. But what if you want to take your playing to the next level? Sure, getting comfortable with some of the most common strumming patterns is essential. But once you’ve mastered a few of the basic guitar techniques, there are several pro-level tricks that will unlock your instrument’s full potential.
Here are just a few guitar techniques that will help you leapfrog from a beginner-level player to a professional guitarist.
10 Guitar Playing Techniques to Learn
We’re not going to lie. Most, if not all, of the guitar techniques on our list aren’t what you’d consider “easy” to play. In fact, many of them are very difficult to master. At the same time, they’re not impossible. And as many guitarists will tell you, the most enjoyable thing about playing guitar is learning how to play it.
Will you get frustrated as you try some of these techniques for the first time? Absolutely. Can you eventually learn how to play them like a pro? We wouldn’t have written this guide if we didn’t think so.
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1. Slide Guitar
Walk into any blues or jazz club, and you’re bound to see a musician playing a guitar on their lap. This technique is affectionately known as slide guitar (or lap guitar). In the simplest terms, slide guitar is a technique in which a musician plays the guitar while holding a hard object against the strings along the fretboard.
As you can see in the image above, the guitarist is wearing a metal rod (or slide) on his ring finger. To play a guitar while wearing a slide, guitarists will typically tune their guitar to an “open” tuning such as Open D or Open E. This enables you to fret entire chords with just one finger—and creates unique vibrato effects that emulate a deep human singing voice.
2. Travis Picking
Watching a country or honky tonk musician play a blistering-fast lick might make your head spin. In many cases, it sounds like controlled chaos. The official term for the technique is Travis Picking, in which the musician quickly switches their thumb across two different bass notes.
While Travis Picking is prevalent across country music, it has also been used widely in pop hits. As Skillshare instructor Kurt Berg explains, a great example of Travis Picking can be heard throughout “Hey There, Delilah” by Plain White T’s.
3. Guitar Strumming
Everyone knows how to strum a guitar, right? Technically, yes. But strumming takes a little more thought than you’d think.
You’ll typically find strumming patterns written in lines consisting of “D” for down and “U” for upstroke. Let’s take a simple example in 4/4 time, in which there are four beats per measure. To play a series of four quarter notes, you’d do four downstrokes, which would be written as “dddd” in guitar tablature. To play a series of eight notes (or two notes per beat), you’d play alternating down and upstrokes, which would be written in tablature as “dududu.”
4. Tremolo Picking
Ever wonder how virtuoso guitarists play so many notes at insanely fast tempos? They’re not pulling off those riffs by playing constant downward strums. In many cases, your favorite guitar solos employ a technique called tremolo picking (also called alternate picking).
The textbook definition of tremolo picking is that the musician plays alternating downward and upward strokes in a continuous fashion. While you’ll often find this technique applied in situations where the player wants to add texture to a song with the constant drone of a chord progression, this is even more prevalent in intricate guitar solos. Guitarists will use tremolo picking to play several notes just across one or two strings, which decreases the burden on the player to navigate across the instrument in a cumbersome way to play the part.
5. Guitar Tapping
Another technique that’s particularly popular in guitar solos is what’s referred to as guitar tapping. This technique requires the player to use the tip of their fingers from their strumming hand to tap frets on the fretboard. You can see an example of guitar tapping in this playthrough by Misha Mansoor of Periphery.
Guitar tapping is frequently used when a guitarist writes a solo that they physically can’t play by fretting notes with one hand. For many players, this opens up possibilities and sections of songs that might have otherwise been assigned to instruments such as a piano.
6. Vibrato Guitar
Singers like to talk about the vibrato of their voices as if they’re badges of honor. If you can pull off a strong vibrato sound from your vocal chords, you’re bound to make it on Broadway (or at least in some form of theater). The same can often be said for the guitar. Make the instrument sing, and you’ll capture the imagination of even the most skeptical audience.
To accomplish this goal, guitarists use a technique called vibrato guitar. Guitarists also refer to this as just “string bending.” To make a note vibrate and ring out in a musical way, you can bend your strings with your fret hand. Not only does this add additional resonance to your tone, but it can also be used to change the note you’re playing on the guitar without moving your fret hand to a different fret!
7. Hybrid Picking
Some songs call for fingerstyle guitar parts on an acoustic guitar. Others call for intricate solos on an electric guitar. And many others call for both. Enter hybrid picking, a technique in which you use a guitar pick and your fingers to play a guitar.
There are several reasons you might employ hybrid picking. Some songs might call for quick transitions between quieter parts that require fingerstyle strumming and louder parts where you need to maximize the volume of your instrument with a pick. If you’re soloing, hybrid picking allows you to add unique dynamics to fast instrumental sections of a song.
8. Guitar Plucking
When you pick up a guitar for the first time, chances are that your teacher will hand you a guitar pick to start strumming with. But you don’t need a guitar pick to play the guitar—and in many cases, plucking the guitar with just your fingers is a preferred method.
You’ll typically find guitar plucking employed by folk artists, particularly in small live settings such as a coffee shop. You can also find several examples of guitar plucking on popular albums by artists such as Jason Mraz and Mumford and Sons.
9. Legato Guitar
In music, the word “legato” is a word to describe a section of a piece that’s played smoothly without any breaks. For an instrument like a clarinet, you’d pull off a legato song by playing a part without taking any breaths between notes. On the guitar, it means… basically the same thing.
To pull off a legato guitar solo, guitarists use what are referred to as “hammer-ons” and “flick-offs.” To play a hammer-on, start by playing a note. As that note is ringing out, fret the same string with a second finger. To play a flick-off, play a note and remove a finger as that note is ringing out.
We’ll end things with a very specific style of music. Flamenco guitar music is known for being very fast and very precise. This is another form of music that many musicians affectionately refer to as controlled chaos. When it’s done well, it’s an incredibly intoxicating style of music—and the driving force behind it is a technique known as rasgueado.
As Classical Guitar Shed explains, rasgueado is known best for its use of the outer side of your fingernail. This is the exact opposite of the more traditional fingerstyle approach, in which you’d use the fleshy side of your fingers to play the guitar.
Taking Your Playing to the Next Level
Some guitarists want to be known for their abilities to play any style of music. Those musicians have spent countless hours mastering the techniques on this list, as well as many others.
But even if you want to focus on just one or two genres of music, the techniques on this list will help you stand out from the crowd. While you might not apply a flamenco guitar part in a metal song, you might draw inspiration from different techniques that will take your playing to a level you never imagined was possible.
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